How Many Gazans Really Died in the War?

When Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, I was working for a newspaper in the west of England, and one of my jobs was editing the page or two of foreign news we carried each day. When reports of a "massacre" in a town called Jenin started appearing on the wire services one afternoon, I was skeptical. The claims by anonymous Palestinians of Israeli soldiers lining civilians up against walls and shooting them not only didn’t ring true, they reeked of propaganda.

Claim and counterclaim are part of the "fog" of any conflict, but I felt my paper shouldn't publish accusations so serious -- and so inflammatory -- without at least a modicum of independent corroboration. I relayed my concerns to the deputy editor, who took a  less skeptical view of the massacre claims. "Run it," he said. "Those ****ing Israelis, they think they can do what they like."

I didn't run it -- at least not the version he wanted me to. I left in the facts as they were known, including reports of IDF troops causing civilian casualties, but I excised the more outrageous claims against the Israelis, including all references to a “massacre.” I didn't see what I was doing as necessarily pro-Israel. I guess I was just clinging to the quaint notion that my paper should stick to reporting the facts.

When, some time later, it emerged that there had indeed been no massacre in Jenin (the Palestinians  claimed that first thousands, then hundreds had died; the final estimate by the UN was 55, including “a number” of civilians [see point No. 4 under Annex IV of its official report]), I felt vindicated and pleased that I hadn’t contributed to the orgy of hatred directed at Israel over a “war crime” that never happened.

Unfortunately for Israel, editors at supposedly reputable news organizations around the world with immeasurably more influence than my small paper, including CNN and the BBC, were less circumspect in reporting the false allegations. (The behavior of the British press was especially disgraceful, as Tom Gross wrote at the time for National Review). In this case the lie got not halfway, but the whole way around the world before the truth got its boots on, and it’s a lie that’s still widely believed to this day.